NEW YORK - Nikolai Alekseev has been called many things in his lifetime, but easily intimidated isn't one of them. Though he is known globally as the face of the Russian gay rights movement, the Moscow-based activist -- who has been arrested, beaten and kidnapped over the course of his career -- insists his work relies more on persistence than courage.
"I never wanted to be an activist, I wanted to do scientific work," the 33-year-old attorney says. "But I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to see injustice...and the longer you do something, the less you fear."
Having launched the first Moscow Gay Pride in 2006 and co-organized subsequent events each year since then, Alekseev spoke before a mid-sized but nonetheless vocal crowd at New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Center Wednesday night as part of a national tour that has sparked a fair amount of controversy.
Alekseev's international profile grew exponentially in 2010, after winning a groundbreaking human rights case against the Russian government in October in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov had violated LGBT activists' right to assemble peacefully during gay pride events, which continue to be routinely banned. (Still, the Russian government quickly filed an appeal, and Moscow's newly-appointed Mayor Sergei Sobyanin -- whom Alekseev deems "more careful to leave the door open for future negotiations" than his predecessor -- is vowing to oppose this year's event).
Alekseev sees that landmark ruling as a peak in an otherwise turbulent year. In September, he was mysteriously detained at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport while trying to board a Swiss Air Lines flight bound for Geneva, after which he says he was taken to a nearby village and "subjected to five to six hours of pressure from security forces, who used every possible gay insult in the book," reports the Advocate. Though Swiss Air officials later told authorities they had been informed he had failed to comply with airport security, Alekseev's case has since been widely deemed an unlawful kidnapping and detainment.
After showing graphic footage of Russian authorities berating participants at Moscow Pride (staged more like a solemn protest in comparison to the colorful parades found in New York and London), Alekseev noted he considers himself more of an overall human rights activist as opposed to one who is LGBT-exclusive. "The gay community is not the only one that's being suppressed by the current Russian regime," said Alekseev, whose foray into activism began when he was still a student in 2001. He did, however, acknowledge some gay-specific challenges, likening his preparations for each year's banned demonstrations to a James Bond film: "We always have to use new tactics, we always have to invent some new strategies to bypass the bureaucrats."
Interestingly, Alekseev's U.S. tour comes at at time when most civil rights advocates are heavily focused on affairs in the Middle East, a point which has not gone unnoticed by his detractors. Earlier this week, former Human Rights Watch staffer Scott Long alleged a since-removed blog entry Alekseev had written in January contained anti-Semitic undertones. As the New Civil Rights Movement is reporting, Long -- now a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School -- had translated Alekseev's quote from the original Russian as, "The Israeli Prime Minister urged Western leaders to support Egyptian dictator [Hosni] Mubarak...And who after this are the Jews? In fact, I always knew who they were."
"Generalizations about a racial, religious, or ethnic group cross a line," Long told the Bay Area Reporter. "They're wrong in themselves and they're wrong when indulged by LGBT activists who have a responsibility to be true to their own values of equality and understanding." Equality California and other organizations withdrew their support of Alexseev's visit, forcing him to cancel several of his speaking engagements in the Golden State, though he insists he will still travel there as planned. "I'm sad that this issue was raised intentionally [only at the moment] I arrived in America," he said. "All my comments were misinterpreted and were said against the Israeli government concerning its support for Mubarak, and not intended to offend anyone individually or collectively."
All controversies aside, there are signs that Alekseev's goal of organizing this year's Moscow Pride, set to take place May 28, peacefully could finally be realized in the wake of his court battle and Luzkhov's departure.
He stopped short of praising what he calls Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's lukewarm stance on LGBT rights -- "He was the first Russian leader in history to even address the question publicly," Alekseev notes -- but feels progress is being made in a nation known for being hostile toward minority groups. For anything beyond that, however, he remains cautiously optimistic. "Before we can ask for any changes in the Russian law...same-sex marriage, adoption rights or whatever else requires changes in the law...we have to make Russia respect what is already given to us, which is the right to free speech."